Kenneth Burke theorized that rhetoric was a way to make human unity possible. One of the key terms to his theory of rhetoric is identification, or persuading a man by “identifying your ways with his”. In speaking to an audience, one is able to identify with it by his gestures, tonality, word choice, order, image, attitude, or ideas. “Identification is affirmed with earnestness,” Burke states, “precisely because there is division.” To identify with your audience is to you unite your audience to your cause or at the very least to understand your system of beliefs. Burke went on to theorize that “rhetoric was the use of symbols to shape and change human beings and their contexts”.
In other words, humans use rhetoric to motivate other humans to take an action of some sort. According to Herrick, Burke often summed up this central action of rhetoric as symbolic inducement. By means of symbolic inducement and identification, a speaker is able to make a powerful argument, and even to motivate his/her audience to act according to the speaker’s overall message.
One such example of this is a music video created and produced by the hip-hop group Public Enemy. It was in response to the noticeable divide in Black culture in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The unity and solidarity of the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s had all but dissipated by the mid to late 80’s and black people, though traditionally poorer than other races, were beginning to divide among themselves. Much of this division was reflected in the youth, and their formation of gangs centered around geographic locales. The early formation of hip-hop culture reflected this, in its movement to encourage competition resolution in a non-violent way. As DJ’s, break dancers, and emcee’s “battled” to bring honor and respect back to their respective neighborhoods, there was a much more realistic war occurring in the urban areas that each of these young men were from. From this stemmed a movement to unite the black community through hip-hop and what eventually became known as its flagship, rap.
In 1989, a rap group named Public Enemy released a single entitled Fight the Power, in which rapper Chuck D called for unity. In this rap, Chuck D used hip-hop as a culture, its language, its mannerisms, and even its visual medium of choice, the music video to bring a positive message to a generation of Black youth that were increasingly becoming lost to a violent life of illegal activities. The single was accompanied by a music video which was shot and directed by Spike Lee in conjunction with his movie Do The Right Thing. But what was the motivation behind this, if any? Some would argue that Public Enemy and Chuck D’s only concern was sales. Others argue that the imagery behind the video and the lyrics in the song were simply just a black man repeated what he had seen, without any real understanding of what the imagery he was invoking meant. Was this an attempt at simple manipulation for money? Or was the motivation behind the song and subsequent video as altruistic as its lyrics and message would imply?
The video consisted of imagery that some viewers found to be threatening. But if the song and accompanying music video performance were to be viewed critically, what would result is a better understanding of what on the surface may have appeared threatening or even derisive to some. Some have criticized the video and song as being a call to arms, inciting racial violence on the part of black Americans. Was that the case? What motivated Public Enemy in their creation of Fight the Power?
In the video, there is a crowd of black people gathered at what appears to be a public political rally that centers around a Public Enemy concert. The concert is staged in the streets of Brooklyn. Interspersed in the crowd are young black men wearing black berets, sunglasses and black military style uniforms, as well as young black men wearing black framed glasses, dress shirts, suits and bowties. Both represent different affiliations, the former with the Black Panther party, and the latter with nation of Islam. On the stage, there is a picture of Civil Rights leader Malcolm X, as well as a black silhouette in a gun target’s crosshairs. It is in this scene that Chuck D, the frontman of Fight the Power, begins to speak.
The purpose of this song and video, as stated by Chuck D in later interviews, and within the lyrics of the song, is to promote unity amongst young inner-city Black Americans in their fight against the various abuses of power against them. In fact as we examine the context of the video we can clearly see from exactly who Public Enemy is trying to reach. While it should be noted that this entire video is wholly contrived and all of the people in it were paid and acting as they had been instructed to, there are points that we can take away from it, points which allow us to understand the intended audience of the rhetor, who in this case is Chuck D, the frontman for Public Enemy. This video isn’t shot on a soundstage, but in Brooklyn, at the very heart of both the hip-hop cultures movement, and the sudden turn to gang warfare and violence. Factor in that the video is essentially a promotion for a rap song, then it becomes clear that the audience that is trying to be reached are younger black urban youth who were being engulfed by urban sprawl, poverty, crime and increasing violence. Truthfully, for many of the black youth who watched this video, it wasn’t a disturbing sight. In fact the atmosphere depicted was no different than a large block party or concert. This is supported by the interspersing images of Chuck D walking with people in the crowd and also performing on stage with a DJ.
Throughout the video there are several different symbols. First, we see pictures of the civil rights leader Malcolm X are shown. Also seen in the video are young black men dressed in two different ways, standing out from the general mass of people. Some of the young black men are wearing bow ties, black plastic framed glasses and suits. This identifies them with the Nation of Islam. The other young men that are singled out are wearing black berets, black shades and military costumes; which clearly distinguishes them as being members of the Black Panther Party. In both cases, these are organizations that were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s. It is interesting to note that in each of these cases we can see that each of these young men are stepping, or dancing, in time to the music being played. This is clearly showing their support, approval and is an example of an attempt at identification. Many young Black Americans considered these organizations to be relics of the past, but by showing young members interacting and dancing to this rap song, it establishes that these young members of each organization are not very different from their counterparts outside of their respective organizations. These symbols, and the imagery behind this video are powerful. Chuck D could have very well shot a video of himself giving a speech about the need to stand up to those who would abuse their power, to be willing to fight for one’s rights, but instead, he chose to this medium to convey his message. This conscious choice helps to support the assumption that Public Enemy was targeting young black Americans, particularly those who were closer to the hip-hop culture’s birthplace in New York, and hoping to reach them with their message and motivate them.
Another insight into the motives behind this rhetorical act is the person who is speaking at the forefront of it. Chuck D, in this video, is a 29 year-old-black man, who grew up in Queens, New York. Unlike many of his peers, Chuck D was able to attend college, and undoubtedly that additional education resulted in his interest in political movements. If you look at his stated purpose and compare it to the video that he and his group have created, clearly he’s trying to motivate young black people to embrace their shared heritage. In his rap, he starts off addressing his audience as “brothers and sisters”. The lead up to the repeated “hook” or chorus is “we got to fight the powers that be”, not “I” or “you”. This is an appeal to unite, to stand up for freedoms that are denied by abuse of power. Chuck D even goes on to encourage this stance when he says that “our freedom of speech is freedom or death”, and again when he points out that “we need awareness, we can’t get careless”. Chuck D’s purpose is clearly to unite his audience. Many of his intended audience had shown a willingness to die over their “territory” or block, and Chuck D’s purpose is very much to get them to show that same willingness to die for a “good” or “right” cause. This is emphasized by his words several times, but most notably when he says “What counts is that the rhymes/Designed to fill your mind/ Now that you've realized the prides arrived/We got to pump the stuff to make us tough/from the heart/ It's a start, a work of art/To revolutionize make a change”. Even at the start of the video, while Chuck D speaks dismissively of the Civil Rights era marches on Washington, his purpose is still made abundantly clear that he is looking to inspire unity, unity of the same kind shown during the 1960’s Civil Rights Era, unity that can be leveraged to bring about revolution and of course, change. It can be well argued that the motivation behind this rhetorical situation stems from one man’s desire to unite his race, after seeing what had befallen them, and having seen what could be accomplished by the means of unity.
More light is shed when we examine the means used to deliver this rhetorical act. As highlighted before, Public Enemy, led by frontman Chuck D, effectively used rap as a means of delivering a message. The power of music lies in more than just its ability to reach a large and diverse audience. Music, particularly rap, is able to gain compliance by means of symbolic inducement. Rap, itself, is a symbol that can result in a bridge of a divide between the speaker and his audience. In the era of “popular music”, those who have success as singers, song-writers, rappers or musicians are envied and idolized by those who support their music. The shortening of fanatic to the term fan was in direct correlation with the effort to describe the reactions of supporters who unflinchingly supported their favorite musicians, bands or organizations. Rap stemmed from the culture of hip-hop, and those who were rappers undoubtedly shared a connection to those who were within that culture, just as break dancers, graffiti artists and DJs would as well. Those within the culture, as with any culture, spoke a particular language and for a speaker to truly reach and motivate them, even with a message that was largely for their benefit, the speaker had to demonstrate that he spoke their language, or that he was one of them. But the relationship went deeper than that. Chuck D was a member of the audience that he sought to reach. He was a young Black American who had grown up in the inner-city. He had witnessed the Civil Rights movement as a child, and as a teenager and young adult seen the unity that formed from that era slowly slip away and turn into territorial violence and gang warfare. Chuck D chose rap as his method to reach youth who were like him, and by using rap, he was able to demonstrate that he could relate to his audience because he was part of them. This was clearly the use of identification to motivate his audience to act.
Was Public Enemy inciting its audience to violence against all authority figures or encouraging anarchy? As we look at each of the points examined in this critique, the argument can be effectively made that wasn’t the purpose or the message behind Fight the Power. In fact, when we look at Chuck D and his choice of rap as the means to deliver his message, as well as the setting he chose to deliver that message in, we can see that his motivation wasn’t to mobilize an army. The video never depicts imagery of an angry Black army assaulting white police officers or politicians, and Chuck D’s choice of rap wasn’t motivated by the need to hide angry inflammatory speech, but to reach a very specific audience. For those who heard Fight the Power and were motivated to take action, the greatest motivating factor can be seen in the power of music and being able to relate to the people in the video, as well as Public Enemy’s frontman, Chuck D.